The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin – Stephanie Knipper

⚠ This review contains spoilers! ⚠

I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers July 2016 batch, but I’ve only just now pulled it out of my TBR pile. It was published in 2016 by Algonquin Books.

The titular Antoinette is a nonverbal, special needs 10 year old girl who can hear songs in the earth and flowers and the people she touches; her mother, Rose, is dying of congestive heart failure. Like any parent of a child in need of lifelong care, she is frightened of what will happen to her daughter after she’s gone, though in this case Antoinette’s gifts give her even more reason to be afraid. She is forced to reach out of her estranged sister Lily, hoping that the rift between them can be mended, and that her sister can be the guardian Antoinette needs. It’s an emotional book; seeing the story from Rose’s perspective, watching her impending death and her fear for her daughter is gut-wrenching and I definitely cried more than once. Though it is an emotionally intense book, the conclusion left me empty and disappointed- I think it had a real opportunity to face life and death and it missed it in favor of something tidy and traditionally “happy”.

Antoinette’s miracles are healing; when she hears a song in the things she touches, she fixes the “wrong” notes, bringing wilted flowers and dead birds back to life. This comes with a dangerous side effect, though, as she doesn’t so much fix problems as move them, as we later find out- she is a conduit, and for most of her early life she’s been pulling the problems into herself. This causes life threatening seizures. Despite them, Antoinette continues to heal people- she understands what she is doing, and is determined to heal her dying mother.

Her mother Rose, after realizing what Antoinette’s power does to her, does everything possible to keep her daughter from healing her or anything else. This works about as well as one would expect, which is to say not well. Rose is determined to keep Antoinette alive, and her ability a secret, knowing that everyone will want her to heal them if they find out. And when one of the people in town, a woman with ALS, is temporarily relieved of her symptoms by Antoinette, her husband knows it was the little girl and becomes obsessed with having Antoinette heal her fully, hounding the family at every turn as his wife grows sicker and sicker.

Lily is obsessive-compulsive; she counts her steps, turning the doorknob, breaths, petals on flowers. Ending on odd numbers is bad to her, an ill-omen for the future. She is the first to recognize that Antoinette is not the same as other children, seeing herself reflected in her niece, and part of her estrangement with Rose is about Antoinette and the fears she inspires in Lily. Lily is afraid that around her niece she will start counting and never be able to stop, that the stress of raising and being responsible for a special needs child will make her own issues impossible to bear. Her relationship with her sister feels normal, natural; the two don’t always get along or agree, but they care for each other, they want to be there for each other.

Aside from the sisters and Antoinette, there are really three other major characters: Seth, Will, and Eli. Eli is the aforementioned husband whose wife is dying of ALS, and his desperation is clear. It was a struggle to empathize with him, sometimes- obviously, if Antoinette could heal to the degree he wanted, she would have healed her mother. But when one’s loved ones are dying, are in pain, there’s only so much logical thinking one can do.

Seth and Will are essentially Lily’s two love interests in the book. Seth is her childhood love, a boy who lived next door to them their whole lives, and who broke her heart when he decided to go to the seminary and join the priesthood- though that didn’t work out for him, she doesn’t know that until the book begins. Will is her next-door neighbor in her new town, an ER doctor who is in remission from cancer. They are very different men, and they both love her in their own ways, and it’s watching love triangles like this that I wish polyamory were more of a cultural Thing. They are both good for her in different ways, and if they weren’t busy comparing themselves to each other, they could get their heads out of their asses and both be loving support for her- because it’s clear that she loves them both, in different ways. I hate love triangles.

As a neurotypical reader, it’s a little difficult for me to formulate an opinion on Antoinette’s perspective in the book. The author is the mother of a special needs child, and Antoinette’s behavior does seem natural, not an exaggeration or a caricature. (The same can be said for Lily’s OCD, though as someone who does not have OCD, I can’t speak to its accuracy- just that it reads genuinely, and not like a stereotype.) But the view from Antoinette’s eyes is the hardest for me to really evaluate- is it realistic? Is it “normalized” to make it palatable for a neurotypical reading audience? I have no idea; I have no idea if I can recommend the book as a healthy, intelligent representation of being neuroatypical or raising a neuroatypical child. I will say that the four main adults in her life for the duration of the book- Rose, Lily, Seth, and Will- are all good with her; they show normal fatigue and frustration but respect her and love her, and they do it without being saintly or effortless- it just is what it is.

The most frustrating part for me was the end. Rose is dying; Lily has finally accepted that Seth is not going to leave her again, and chooses him over Will; Will has realized that Antoinette’s seizures are caused by her holding in all the illness she fixes. And so as Rose’s lips are turning blue and her pulse is almost gone, he tells Antoinette to give all of her mother’s wrong ‘notes’ to him. The final chapter has Seth, Lily, and Antoinette meeting Rose at the cemetery a year later, where they are planting flowers at their parents’ and Will’s grave. It feels hollow. It was a letdown for me, as there are several moments of bonding between Lily and Antoinette about how Antoinette can’t keep fixing flowers- it makes Lily sad to see them wilt, too, but it’s part of the process. Accepting Rose’s death, making a family out of Lily, Seth, Will, and Antoinette would have been exceedingly more poignant. Death is a natural part of the cycle, for all that we wish it weren’t, and family is what we choose, what we make of it- it doesn’t have to be perfect or “normal” or fit what anyone else thinks it ought to- just what works for the people in it. Instead we’re left with something sappy and saccharine. There’s also the rather huge plot hole of Antoinette’s role as a conduit. If she can transfer the wrongness from one person to another, from plants and animals, why not spread it out? Move one or two wrong ‘notes’ into a patch of earth in the woods, one or two into the stream, etcetera etcetera. Will’s martyring is unnecessary, if Antoinette has the control that we see throughout the book.

Sometimes we just want a book where everything works out nicely in the end, and I can see where someone might view Will’s self-sacrifice as deeply romantic and generous. For me, though, it was a very disappointing ending to an otherwise moving book about accepting that we cannot “fix” everything, and that part of the beauty of life is in its changes.

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